The past two days were the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which is both the Feast of First Fruits and the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. (For our first fruits, we ate our first leaf lettuce of the year from our garden. In addition to liturgy, we like to tie our holidays in with what is happening in nature.) On the major holy days, as on the Sabbath, religious Jews do not use the phone, computer, TV, CD player, radio, or other electronic communications devices. No texting, blogging, surfing, chatting, gaming, etc. No, we don't turn off the electricity -- the lights and fans were still on -- but we do unplug from the endless chatter of the outside world.
My non-Jewish friends cannot conceive of doing this. "What if there is an emergency? How will people contact you?" Well, if it is really an emergency, then I will hear the sirens, see the tornado, or the police will come to my door. Anything less than that can wait. And you know what? We survive being unplugged just fine. In fact, we more than survive -- we actually enjoy it. Turning off all the human chatter gives us the quiet space to enjoy the natural sounds in the woods around us. Birds, frogs, toads, insects, the rustle of the wind in the leaves -- how can you hear these things if you are always plugged into your ipod?
In 1987, as part of a series of lessons on kabbalah (49 Gates of Light), I wrote the following about Moses and the Burning Bush:
What is genius? Perhaps it is the ability to see familiar things in a new and different way. For example, how long did it take Moses to realize that the burning bush was not being consumed? After all, this was something he had never encountered before. Most of us would probably have glanced at it and said, “Oh look, there's a bush on fire.” Then, shrugging our shoulders, we would have continued on our way. But Moses took a little more time. Turning aside to investigate, he became personally involved. Only then, the Midrash tells us, did God call out, “Moses, Moses.”
The question is, how many other potential prophets have missed their opportunity to receive, simply because they were distracted and did not recognize the vision? In this fast-paced world of ours, it’s so easy to say, “I don't have the time.” Yet in order to receive inspiration, we must be willing to make time for the Creator to speak to us.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was fond of saying that a person who does not have an hour of solitude with God each day was not truly human. By this he meant that we were created to be channels of God's blessing. If we do not make time in our lives for this, we are not fulfilling our purpose. To be truly human is to bridge heaven and earth, to join together the spiritual and material worlds. To do this, we must listen to the "still, small voice" speaking to us from the Silence. (From 49 Gates of Light: A course in Kabbalah, 2010 revised edition. Also available as a download on Lulu.com on my Lulu Storefront page.) )
This is even more true today. I recently read about a survey where college students were asked about their use of electronic devices, and a large percentage said they cannot go for more than ten minutes without checking their email or Twitter or whatever. And here I am, turning off the whole Internet for 26 hours every Sabbath, and two days for the Festival of Shavuot. Not only that, but I do not carry a phone everywhere I go, because I don't want to talk to you or anyone else when I am out communing with God and nature.
In his now-classic book, The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described it as "a palace in time." He was the first Jewish theologian to spell out for the Western world how traditional Jews live more in time than space. While gentiles tend to travel to sacred places to feel holy, Jews have sacred times that we carry with us. The Sabbath is a portable sanctuary, a retreat that you can have anywhere. This is not to disparage the importance of sacred space, but if you clutter that space up with emails and text messages, then where is the holiness? When we prepare for the Sabbath, we speak of creating the "Sabbath space." By this we mean more than just setting the table. We are creating an atmosphere where we can interact with God, nature, and each other in a personal, "be here now" kind of way.
The Sabbath is based on the Seventh Day of Creation, when God rested. It is not that God got tired. Rather, God ceased creating, thereby making it possible for us to do the same. On the Sabbath, we are not doing our busy-ness. We are free to just be. Try it sometime: Turn off your phone, don't log on, don't play video games or watch TV, etc. for a whole day. Instead, watch and listen to the real world around you. Who knows? You might even discover your own equivalent of a burning bush.